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James Sutherland provides tactical insight into the Copa America quarter-final that finished Mexico 0-7 Chile.
This Copa America was supposed to be Mexico’s coming out party, when they would announce to the world that they are a legitimate team and on equal ground with their big brothers in South America. The Mexicans have long lived with the stigma of playing in CONCACAF and being alleged flat track bullies. They’ve also long sought to vindicate the quality of their team, with guest appearances in Copa America and at the World Cup. But this Copa America Centenario, in America, in front of 95% Mexican crowds, coming off a great year, was supposed to be different than the previous ones. Finally Mexico would prove itself on the world stage.
Chile also came in with a chip on their shoulder. The defending Copa champions, the Chileans felt they should have gotten more than just a year to hold the cup. On top of that, Argentina had fairly easily beaten them in their first game, and Chile wanted vindication, as people focused on other international teams.
The game was a polarization of results. Chile could not have found a better result, dominating from start to finish and reasserting their talent. Mexico, on the other hand, collapsed colossally, folding under Chile’s superb pressing. Unable to deal with the Chilean pressure, Mexico conceded 7 goals, a historic embarrassment.
Mexico (4-3-3): Ochoa; Aguilar, Araujo, Moreno, Layun; Herrera, Duenas, Guardado; Lozano, Chicharito, Corona
Chile (4-4-2): Bravo; Beausejour, Jara, Medel, Fuenzalida; Vidal, Aranguiz, Diaz, Puch; Sanchez, Vargas
Juan Carlos Osorio changed Mexico’s lineup yet again, bringing in 4 new players who had rested in Mexico’s last group stage match. For the first time in this tournament, Osorio lined up a completely natural team, with no players out of position. One of the major criticisms of Osorio’s year in charge of Mexico is that he hasn’t settled on a lineup, constantly tinkering. Although Mexico hadn’t lost yet under Osorio, the match seemed to provide proof to Osorio’s critics of his flaws.
Chile lined up in their standard XI, although with a slight twist. It looked like Juan Antonio Pizzi would go away from the 4-3-3 that Chile has employed for several years, under Pizzi and Jorge Sampaoli before him, instead using a 4-4-2. However in possession the Chileans still were in a 4-3-3, with Puch pushing into the first line.
Both teams, despite what the lineup sheet said, were incredibly fluid both in and out of possession, making for an open and exciting game.
Mexico had been very fluid in possession throughout the tournament, sometimes without a describable shape. Osorio allowed the players to change positions freely, including in defense against Uruguay, when Reyes and Layun consistently moved out of defense and into midfield during build up (and not just as balancing or occasional moves, but permanently), and Rafa Marquez dropped into the open central defending spot. The front six attackers were also very fluid, playing positionally and roaming freely, excepting Javier Hernandez who stayed at striker.
This fluidity allowed Mexico freedom in build up, and posed serious issues against more rigid defenses, including Uruguay, one of the best defending teams in the international game. Because their players were constantly moving, especially in the middle and final third, it became hard for teams to defend, especially in strict zonal marking, and allowed Mexico to create overloads.
Mexico’s build up had some issues, including the distance between the 3 man center backs in the initial stages, and lack of connections in midfield, but through good diagonal and vertical passes Mexico was able to often skip the second line of build up, and advance the ball directly to their forward attackers.
Chile countered this free movement with their own fluidity. Having been coached first by Biesla and then by one of his prime disciples (Sampaoli), Chile are used to playing a man-orientated style (although not quite as radical as Biesla’s straight man marking). They put on a masterclass in man-orientated defense against Mexico, stifling the Mexicans play in the middle and final third.
Instead of playing a more rigid zonal marking system, as the Uruguayans tried, Pizzi allowed his defenders greater freedom and focused more on man marking than on retaining a positive shape.
Notice in the photo above how Chile is defending the throw in. All of the possible options are being man marked, while Chile still retains aspects of the zonal system. Beausejour, the left back, has stepped up to cut off an easy pass, and Diaz has dropped back, marking a Mexican.
Now you can see that Diaz has stepped up to track Chicharito’s run through the middle, while Gary Medel, who had been marking Chicharito, instead shifts onto Hector Herrera, Diaz’s man.
This heavy man-orientation was risky, as it left Chile unbalanced and not compact on occasion. However, it worked because of Mexico’s lack of coherent shape in build up. Because Osorio allowed so much positional freedom and fluidity, Mexico wasn’t in an adequate shape to take advantage of the holes in Chile’s defense.
Mexico’s lack of coherent shape didn’t just hurt them in just offense, but in defense as well. They were in no shape to counterpress, and given the lack of pace among their backline, this left Mexico incredibly open.
Chile’s 4th goal is a perfect example. Mexico lose the ball back in midfield, and are slow to react. When they finally begin to pressure Chile, it is uncoordinated, often on a single player basis, and unsupported. Chile easily play out of the midfield pressure, and Mexico’s backline is passive, ball watching. Thus they react slowly as Alexis Sanchez touches the ball on to Vargas, who is easily through on goal to score.
This lack of a counterpress and competent structure was evident throughout the game, and especially the early second half, as Mexico gave the ball away in dangerous positions, and had no way to stop Chile’s lightning quick counterattacks.
Chile’s high pressure increasingly unsettled the Mexicans through the match. Mexico had shown some of its susceptibility to pressure in the match against Uruguay, where the Uruguayans had pulled themselves back into the game with 20 minutes of high pressing. Mexico had gone completely out of rhythm in that game, but eventually Uruguay ran out of gas and Mexico was able to score two more goals to win.
Chile, on the other hand, was relentless and unceasing in their pressure. Their high press was, similar to their deeper defending, fairly variable and man-orientated. Chile pressed in a 4-4-2, 4-2-2-2 and 4-1-3-2 depending on the situation. Beausejour at left back also stepped out of defense often to track the movement of Mexico’s wingers and wide midfielders, leaving a 3 or even 2 man backline.
Chile’s 4-4-2, although here Beausejour has pushed into midfield, with Diaz staying as a single pivot, meaning Chile are actually more in a 3-1-4-2.
Chile’s 4-2-2-2, a variant of the 4-4-2, where the wide midfielders come higher and into the halfspaces to pressure Mexico.
And finally, the 4-1-3-2, where a central midfielder steps alongside Vargas to press, and the attacking wingers drop back. Diaz is playing as a single pivot in front of defense, which he does in nearly every formation.
All of these aren’t conscious formation choices, so much as different situations that Chile is reacting to. Overall, the press stopped Mexico’s build up play in the first half, stopping them from barely registering any chances.
In the second, Chile somehow ratcheted up the pressure to blow Mexico out of the water. Chile’s 3rd goal is the perfect example. They pressure the ball, forcing Mexico back and back, eventually trapping them by the corner flag. Mexico try to play out of the pressure, eventually nearly doing so. But Chile springs a pressing trap on the Mexicans in the center of the field, win the ball back, and have a 3 v. 1 counter deep in Mexico’s half; easy goal.
Time and again in the second half Mexico tried to play through Chile’s pressure, lost the ball, and then gave up a goal on the counter. This is where the necessity of a good shape in possession translates to defense; as we saw above, Mexico was unstructured, and in no position to counterpress, or even quickly react to Chile’s counters.
Chile provided a perfect example of using defending to dominate a game. Their pressure dictated where Mexico would play, and although they didn’t have a majority of the ball Chile controlled the game.
It would be easy to criticize Mexico for not simply clearing the ball and alleviating the pressure. Yet that too would play exactly into Chile’s hands. They would win the ball, and then put more pressure on the opposition, deep in their half, this time with the ball instead of without it. It was admirable of Mexico, and indicative of the style that Osorio has sought to implement, that they sought to control the ball and play their way out.
Thus it was the execution, not the idea or principle, which doomed Mexico. The criticism of Osorio should be that he didn’t set Mexico up better to deal with Chile’s pressure, and to counterpress and defend in transition. Osorio ought to have done a better job coaching Mexico’s offensive structure, making it more structured and less reliant on individual talent.
Chile, on the other hand, played a nearly flawless game. Their defense was superb, their offense deadly. They’ve made a strong case, reasserting themselves on the international stage, as many had turned the attention to Argentina on South America, and Germany, France and Spain in Europe. This Chile side has accomplished a remarkable amount, and their playing style is so much fun to watch. They could be major contenders for the 2018 World Cup, barring any disastrous injuries or rows.
Written by James Sutherland